Horsepower

The standards demanded of a medieval warhorse were enormous.

A destrier needed to be strong enough not only to carry a rider in full armour but also armour of their own. They needed to be large and sturdy enough to be able to withstand the chaos of battle and to potentially charge through the ranks of the enemy without breaking stride. Yet they also needed to be fast and agile enough to be able to manoeuvre quickly. And, perhaps most crucially, they needed to have nerves of steel.

As a flight animal, i.e. one that would run away in the face of danger, most of these demands are unnatural to the horse. Charging at another being goes against all a horse’s natural instincts, with the noise of battle alone enough to trigger flight. Add to that lethal arrows dropping from the sky, sharp weapons cutting and stabbing all around them and bodies crashing into each other and you get a potent mix that would send any animal into a frenzied flight.

 

In light of these challenges, it seems an extraordinary feat to train efficient and deadly cavalry.

In spite of all the brutal looking bits and spurs and other riding implements of the medieval period, both horse and rider must have been exceptionally well-trained. A horse was a knight’s life-insurance (and worth huge sums of money), so they had to be reliable.

Modern jousters know this as well as any medieval knight did. Some horses are just not the right “person” for the job, some might only cope with it for a season before they refuse to ever charge again. The horse must be mentally and physically able to comply with the high demands of war and tournament.

Cold-blooded horses, for example a Percheron or Suffolk Punch, tend to be not only sturdy, strong animals but also have a much calmer disposition than a temperamental thoroughbred. That is not to say that the latter are unsuitable for war, and there is plenty of evidence of the contrary. However, they are more suited to a very different style of fighting on horseback as employed by various Near Eastern and Eastern European peoples for example.

For the classic medieval Western European style on the other hand, relying heavily on strength and force, a horse more reminiscent of a modern cob or light cold blood was needed.

The Warhorse Project’s aim is to trace these very horses across medieval Europe, from their physical development to their training and usage. Understanding where, when and how medieval warhorses emerged and evolved will shed more light on military transitions and associated social changes such as the development of chivalry.

4 thoughts on “Horsepower

  1. Diana A Sprain

    It is not true that the majority of the horses used were, in fact, 15 to 16 hands? The draft horse was a farm horse, not a warhorse. The myth of knights riding Shires, Percherons, and Clydesdales to battle was perpetuated by Hollywood. Knights were able to move quite well on foot in their armor. Just take a serious look at the horse armor in museums today. What would it actually fit? The more likely type of mount classified as the “destrier” of legend was a warmblood. The best source of warmblood horses for Europe was Spain (the Andalusian type) with a mix of Middle Eastern (Arabian, Turk, and Barb) for spirit. It was this blend combined with the sturdy bone of the English and Irish Hobby that gave us the Throughbred.

    Reply
    1. Helene Benkert Post author

      As stated in the article, heavy horses, such as most drafts, are quite unsuitable as chargers in war, both physically and mentally. They may well have been used as pack animals during war but are unlikely to have been ridden in battle. Though research is still ongoing, the medieval warhorses were a lot smaller than people tend to imagine. A 15hh horse would have stood out even amongst the warhorses, which were probably only between 13 to 14hh with the occasional larger horse between 14-15hh. We aim to provide a clearer picture through our research.

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  2. Dominic Sewell

    I’m very pleased to see this research but must stress that types of horse rather than breeds should be used. Stud books had not really been established so it’s difficult to judge the medieval warhorse by using modern breed terms.
    The Spanish horse (later the PRE) has been introduced to England before the Norman Conquest and had been the Destrier of choice for 500 years.
    The use of cold breeds as destriers is misguided and there is little or no evidence written or pictorial to suggest this. Almost all images of armours knights are of animals that resemble horses of Iberian origin.Take for example the horses depicted in the “ Adoration of the Lamb” triptych.
    Also it must stressed that the thorough bred horse had not yet been created.Whilst used in later Warfare in the 19thC and beyond,the breed didn’t exist before the 17th century.
    I look forward to seeing this worthy project advance.

    Reply
    1. Helene Benkert Post author

      A very good point! Terminology is a little tricky but as you correctly pointed out ‘breed’ is something we should not be using for medieval horses. Perhaps we ought to find a new term to distinguish between a conformation type and a “pre-studbook breed/type”.

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